Paired Lasers Offer Unprecedented Look At Extreme Matter
A Laser at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center has been upgraded to an amazing 200 TeraWatts which can be paired with an X-ray laser to become a dynamic duo of science.
The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center or SLAC is one of 10 “Office Of Science Laboratories” for the United State’s department of energy (DOE). This lab, operated at Stanford University, is one cool place. This high-end research facility has a resume that includes building the longest particle accelerator, discovering fundamental building-blocks of matter, and in their spare time they also created the very first website in North America.
Besides that and more, they also fiddle with laser systems… a lot. They have over 150 of them after all. One of them is kinda special. It’s a near-infrared titanium-sapphire laser that doesn’t appear to have a name or an ironic acronym as far as I can tell. I will therefore refer to it as KaPow.
KaPow was recently upgraded by 700% to run at a peak power of 200 terawatts or 200 trillion watts. To get an idea of how many watts that is, it’s 200 times the world’s total power consumption. That number is a combination of all sources of power including oil, coil, solar, wind etc etc. All that power though is compressed into a beam that fires for tens of femto-seconds or quadrillionths of second so the total amount of energy used isn’t that much.
Still, so much power in such a brief interval of time creates temperatures and pressures to make your hand stand on end and rival almost anything in nature. We’re talking about millions of degrees (do units even matter at that point?) and get this…2 trillion pounds per square inch. To put that into perspective, imagine going to the ocean to experience air pressure at sea-level. Now multiply that pressure in your mind by 300 billion times (I hope that helps).
KaPow then can eviscerate whatever it points at very very quickly, making the atoms and molecules in its deadly focus experience what their brethren experience inside massive stars and other extreme scenarios. The problem is, how do we find out exactly what happens? What are the characteristics of such fleeting yet extreme forms of matter? That’s where another laser comes in. This one is an x-ray laser and it has a name of sorts (or an initialism I suppose)…it’s called the LCLS or Linac Coherent Light Source. This one isn’t nearly as powerful but it has the ability to investigate the aftermath of KaPow’s destruction by firing it with femtosecond accuracy at the same spot Kapow just hit.
Kapow is also nothing if not versatile. It can be used to emit gamma rays, proton beams, and exotic forms of x-rays called betatron radiation. All of these, in turn, can be paired with the LCLS laser to offer an unprecedented level of investigation of extreme forms of matter. This has scientists in fields as diverse as astrophysics, geology, and nuclear energy drooling with anticipation at the discoveries that await them once similar laser systems are more widespread.
The future looks promising for KaPow. It could potentially reach power levels approaching 300 or even 400 terawatts.
As powerful as that is, it’s not the most powerful laser in the world. Osaka University recently revealed one that spits out a beam 10 times as powerful as KaPow…a mind-blowing 2 Petawatts.
I’ll have to call that one Zwap!! perhaps.
Image Credit: SLAC